Exploring the Ritec Valley
The ‘public footpath’ sign tucked away by the side of the Greenhills Hotel in the village of St Florence pointed behind a high, solid fence and gives the impression that it might well lead nowhere.
But when I peeked behind that fence, I found the start of a narrow muddy trail that looked enticingly as if it could actually continue for some distance.
It was still not an entirely promising start, but the path did go on eastward through the greenery for quite a while before coming to open fields. It was here that I chanced upon a local dog walker to whom I became indebted for a great little walking adventure.
The man with the dog encouraged me to follow the direction of the path across a couple of fields with a warning that things could get boggy: “Even when it’s dry, it’s wet over there.”
He told me, correctly, that I would eventually come to a stile, where I would have the choice to go left (to join up with Fiddlers Lane and thus return to St Florence) or right (to head away from the village, to the east). Either way, he said, I would be on an old drovers’ road.
There’s something about drovers’ roads – these ancient pathways seem filled with the spirits of the people and animals that once walked along them. Perhaps it was these ghosts that seemed to beckon me to turn right. And I’m glad they did. For I entered a mini-world of greens of every shade, where moss-covered trees formed arches over the narrow and often waterlogged path running parallel to the Ritec river.
The wild was slowly reclaiming what remained of a tiny stone cottage amid the trees. And in some places the trees and plants had all but blocked off the way ahead, daring me to keep going. Sometimes bent double, I squelched on in my wellies past ferns and fallen branches, marvelling at the sculptures created by nature. And everywhere the greenness was splashed with the colours of celandines, bluebells, dandelions and white blossom.
Eventually, I emerged from the wood and headed up over fields to meet the road near Gumfreston. I needed to return to St Florence as quickly as I could, but I always prefer a circular walk, so I turned north-west along the B4318, knowing it would link up with Devonshire Drive and lead me southwards back to the village.
The volume of traffic on the road from Gumfreston probably had something to do with the fact that it is lined with holidaymaker attractions: the Dinosaur Park offering “Jurassic journeys” and a “slithery, slimy swamp thing”, Heatherton World of Activities (archery, go-karting and paintballing) and Manor Wildlife Park (wallabies, rhino and meerkats).
Somehow none of this sounded much of a match for a silent and solitary adventure, squeezing through the beautiful, hidden world of the Ritec Valley. There were “experiences” galore on offer along the B4318, but the real experience of being absorbed by the woods was one that I felt the theme-park-goers were missing out on.
© Nigel Summerley